The people’s team do not belong to one class of Moscow society, nor to any particular area, nor even to one home ground, but to the memory of the most dedicated figure in the history of Russian football.
It was the vision of Nikolai Starostin that the city should have a team which could operate independently of political interference. Having helped to create Spartak from the Moscow Sports Club that had been based in the Luzhniki Park since the early Twenties. Starostin then coached the team. and even managed to play one match in the club’s first Soviet championship win in the autumn of 1936. His three footballing brothers, Alexander, Andrei and Pyotr, also played for the team and for the USSR.
Officially the club was affiliated ro the Moscow food producers’ co-operative, but
Starostin ensured that Spartak’s relationship with the authorities was, at best, ambivalent. He would spend much of the next six decades combing the country for young talent and coaxing it away from other, more politically favoured, clubs.
Starostin’s resolute stance against the KGB (represented by Dynamo Moscow) and the Red Army (CSKA Moscow) cost him dear – he spent ten years in Stalin’s gulags after being charged with “the promotion of bourgeois sport”, and was released only after the personal intervention of the dictator’s son, Vasily.
Nikolai Starostin died in February 1996, shortly before his 94th birthday. But his legacy lives on. Spartak’s nationwide popularity, reputation for attractive football and freedom from any rusting state authority have helped them face the modern age.
Backed by Gazprom, the huge state gas and oil company, Spartak won the first three Russian titles after the break-up of the Soviet Union, and took part in three consecutive Champions’ League campaigns. Indded, they went on to win all but one of the Russian league titles between 1992 and 2001.
In 1995/96, under coach Oleg Romantsev (later the dub’s president), Spartak shocked everyone by taking maximum points to top their group, only to sell four key players – goalkeeper Stanislav Cherchesov, defenders Viktor Onopko and Vasiy Kulkov, and forward Sergei Yuran – in the winter break and fail at the quarterr-final stage.
A cut in sponsorship funds from Gazprom had forced Spartak to hit the seiling trail. Bur for once, the club found political influence operating in their favour when, just before their Champions’ League exit, the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, issued a decree enabling the team to sign players from outside the city without paying local tax. Their squad suitably reinforced on the cheap, Spartak mounted a fine blindside run to win back their Russian title from Alaniya Vladikavkaz, beating the provincials 2-1 at a play-off in St Petersburg in November 1996. .
With their spiritual home, the Luzhniki stadium, considered unfit for their return after reconstruction, Spartak’s fans had to follow their club to Lokomotiv Moscow – as the “Spartak We Love You” graffiti on the Dynamo ticket-office wall testified. They mulled around in the east (vostok) stand overlooking the opposition goal mouth, with the harder element in sector A, and continue to provide the team with the best support in the city.
None of that popular favour counted for a thing in June 1997, when Spartak’s director-general Larissa Nechayeva was murderee at her dacha outside Moscow. Both Nechayeva and her personal manager were shot in the head, victims of a gangland assassination which, it was reported, may have been connected to Spartak’s reluctance co sign away TV rights.
For Spartak. it seemed, refusing to play the game according to the rule. would aways carry a bitter penalty – no matter which ideology was running Russia.
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The statue of Lenin outside the Luzhniki, a ground that bore his name during the Communist era: “The stadium sparkled during the 1980 Olympics, the Russians proving they could put on a show as good as anything the capitalists had ever done (although they never quite matched the tastelessness displayed at Los Angeles four years later.
But on a bitterly cold night in 1982 the Lenin Stadium saw the darker side of mass physical culture. Spartak were 1-0 up against Haarlem of holland in the UEFA Cup when sections of the crowd started to leave down an icy ramp. Spartak then scored a late goal, and as those leaving, having heard the cheers, tried to turn back, a fatal crush ensued… The incident went unreported in the Soviet Union for the next seven years, despite leaked reports in the west which spoke of around twenty deaths. Then came Glasnost and with it more openness in the reporting of Soviet accidents. In 1989, Sovietsky Sport, the official government sports newspaper, telling the story for the first time in the Soviet press, put the death toll at sixty nine.”
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The Starostin Brothers
The celebrated Starostin brothers were notable football personalities of the past century. In the 1930s, they came to play leading roles in “Spartak”, the most popular of all Soviet soccer clubs.
The eldest of the four brothers, Nikolai Starostin, a football and bandy (a form of ice hockey) player, captained this country’s team in both sports. Born in 1902 in Moscow’s historic district of Presnya, Nikolai studied at the Mansfield Brothers commercial college, where he developed interest in football. His professional skills of a book-keeper came in handy when he managed the Spartak Sports Society. After the death of his father in the typhus epidemic in 1920, Nikolai supported his family, playing soccer in the summer and bandy in the winter. However, interest in football prevailed.
He later recalled, “We were soccer aficionados, who spoiled for a fight. We were eager to come out on the pitch and play another game. The stadium became our second home.”
Nikolai began his football career playing for the Moscow Sports Circle, later called Krasnaya Presnya. The team grew, building a stadium of its own, supporting itself from ticket sales and playing matches across Russia.
As a high-profile sportsman, Starostin came into close contact with Alexander Kosarev, Secretary of the Young Communist League, who was seeking to expand his organization’s control in the field of sports. In November 1934, Kosarev charged the Starostin brothers with organizing and developing a new group, which, after heated debate, was named Spartak – in honor of the Roman rebel slave and gladiator, Spartacus.
Nikolai Starostin is also credited with the creation of the Spartak logo – a horizontal red-and-white rhombus.
Nikolai played for the team, earning a reputation of a fearless forward, one of the fastest in Soviet football.
After retiring as a player, Nikolai Starostin took on the responsibilities as head of the new group. His brothers – Alexander, Andrei and Pyotr – also played for Spartak, becoming acclaimed football masters. Alexander was also Spartak’s first captain.
Their two sisters, Klavdiya and Vera, who played volley-ball and bandy, were Spartak’s avid fans.
Each of the Starostin brothers had his own vision of the game, and they often disagreed on how it should be played, but their adherence to ethical, honest football remained unchanged. As did their loyalty to Spartak, the team they devoted their lives to.
When in the 1970s Andrei Starostin was offered the position of chief of the Locomotive Moscow team, his elder brother, Nikolai, said: “We found ourselves in Spartak, we became well-known footballers here, and we must not quit it.” Andrei Starostin thought it wise to follow his advice.
From the very onset, the elegant combination play practiced by Spartak won the hearts of many football fans here. Its most formidable opponent was Dynamo Moscow run by the Soviet secret police.
The Dynamo-Spartak rivalry became the bitterest in the history of Soviet sports. In 1938 and 39, the ‘red-and-whites’ won both the Soviet national league and cup, much to the annoyance of Lavrenty Beria, the head of the secret police, who was also the president of Dynamo.
A keen footballer in his youth, Beria had played against Nikolai Starostin in the 1920s, suffering a humiliating defeat. Dynamo’s patrons were outraged by Spartak’s successes and, in a very large measure, by the popularity of the Starostin brothers, especially Nikolai, whose methods of running Spartak were considered similar to that of an entrepreneur of a Western sports club.
In the late 1930s many of their friends and associates were swept into the purges, including Alexander Kosarev, Spartak’s most influential supporter. Nikolai Starostin later recalled that in 1939 he expected to be taken away any moment.
For some reason, Soviet Prime Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, refused to sign an arrest order, but three years later Georgy Malenkov, a Soviet Politbureau member, did. The four Starostin brothers were arrested in 1942, facing accusations of involvement in a plot to assassinate Joseph Stalin and also of ‘anti-Soviet statements’ and ‘doubts about Soviet victory in the war against Nazi Germany’. These charges were later dropped.
Following two years of interrogation at Lubyanka, the Starostins were found guilty of ‘lauding bourgeois sports’ and sentenced to ten years of hard labor. During their time in the gulags, the skills of the Starostin brothers were highly sought after. They were invited to coach local soccer teams in the Soviet minor leagues. Under the circumstances, soccer became a means of survival for them. Nikolai Starostin later wrote in his memoirs: “I naturally regret the lost ‘camp’ years… Yet, strange as it may seem, everywhere I went the soccer ball was always out of Beria’s reach. Even though the notorious police chief had once been a player himself, he was never able to defeat me.”
Following Stalin’s death in March 1953, the Starostin brothers were released, and their sentence declared illegal. In 1955 Nikolai Starostin returned to Spartak and presided over the club until his death in 1996 at the more than mature age of 93.
Back in the 1930s, there was a funny joke about “Spartak” and its founders, the Starostin brothers. “Spartak” plays in a tournament abroad. A local journalist asks: “Who is playing at right back?” “Starostin is,” came the answer. “Who’s center half then?” “Starostin.” “And next to him?” “Starostin again”. “And right wing?” “Starostin,” came the answer again. “Oh, I see”, the journalist says.
“Starostin” in Russian means ‘footballer’.